AUSTIN (KXAN) - At a typical karaoke bar, the crowd is lost in chaotic conversation as a brave singer belt sout his favorite tune. When the song is over, a smattering of applause gives way to more chaotic conversation, and the name of the next singer is announced by an emcee - who continually calls only his or her own friends - to the front.
A newcomer has virtually no chance of getting a moment in the spotlight, at least not without waiting in frustration for a couple of hours.
At Ego's on South Congress Avenue in Austin, things are different. Here, Thursday nights bring out members of a three year-old karaoke league, founded by then law student Whitney Francis while she competed in a local kickball league.
"After one of our games where we had lost," said Francis, "we went to a Karaoke bar and we said, 'You know, if there was a Karaoke league, we would win every time.' And I started thinking about it and I said, 'You know what, I could make a Karaoke league.'"
Francis settled on a name for her creation: The National Karaoke League. Don't lte the name get you too excited, though. So far, it exists in only one city, Austin.
"We're optimistic," the founder laughed.
There has been some expansion, though. There are three divisions in the Capital City, the original Downtown Division at Ego's on Thursday nights, the Austin Capital Division at Molotov on Wednesday nights, and a North Austin Division at Canary Roost, also on Wednesday nights.
Beyond the name, there's even a motto with a somewhat ominous ring to it: Sing or die.
"It just means, you know, leave everything: Your job, your worries, whatever at the door and give a great performance to the crowd," said Francis.
Of course, we're talking karaoke here, not American Idol. So, many of the singers bring to the microphone something bordering on the downright awful.
League member, Victor Ozuna, doesn't care.
"No one's going to sound perfect," he said, "so you just got to go out there and have fun and let loose."
That attitude sits just fine with the league founder.
"You could be off key the entire time; many of our singers are off key the entire time and they still have a great time every week," said Francis. "People offer different things. Some people have just great energies; some are great singers; some really go all out with the props and the costumes. So whatever your strength is, someone will find a way to use it in their team and come up with something good."
A classic example of a team coming up with something good is the Green Team. It's members exchange email ideas throughout the week and then get together on Sundays to refine their act and work out details surrounding their look and choreography. This week, the result is a solo performance by team member Ali Welz of Bonnie Tyler's mega 80's hit song, Total
"I like to have some backup dancers, yeah, definitely, yeah," said Welz. "I think it makes it more interesting than just one person. You see that in any Karaoke bar in Austin, you know, just one person singing. What you don't usually see is interpretive dance happening in the back. So that makes it a little different."
The crowd roars its approval and the Green Team's hopes for victory begin to soar. Still, the members keep some perspective about them.
"First and foremost, we do the National Karaoke League to have fun," Welz insists. "You know, there's some healthy competition and some rivalries and some old bad blood. You know, we always want to do our best, but first and foremost, it's just about having a really good time."
As the night continues, though, something else happens. League member Jeff Beckage takes the stage in a white boat captain's costume. "I rented it tonight from Lucy in Disguise [a local costume shop]. I said, 'I need to be Captain Stubing from Love Boat; what have you got for me?'"
The hat is about three sizes too big. The shirt came without epaulets, so someone at the shop scrounged up a couple to pin to it. The epaulets didn't have much of a military look, more like a Michael Jackson thing, but Beckage figured they would do just fine.
On stage, his rendition of the Love Boat theme song was to be charitable, terrible. The moves, the eyes and the heart, however, were absolutely mesmerizing.
"The reason I joined Karaoke," said Beckage, "is because I'm a bad singer and I like the fact that I'm bad, but yet the crowd supports you, nonetheless."
That is a gift from the crowd to performers like him, but in the process of standing up in front the audience, he gives himself a gift, as well.
"Singing Karaoke creates some anxiety in me because I'm not a good singer," Beckage said. "And so, I like the fact that creating anxiety helps me get in touch with the rest of my, you know, feelings, so to speak. Hence the costume, the visual, because Karaoke is about performance, not necessarily about singing."
When the solo round ended, ballots were distributed to all the league members. They filled them out and turned them in. In the back of the room, Francis entered the results into her laptop. The winner: Captain Merrill Stubing and his friend, Jeff Beckage.
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